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BJS Reports Prison Litigation Statistics

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released the report Prisoner Petitions in the Federal Courts, 1980-96 in October, 1997. According to the report, the rate at which state and federal prisoners filed petitions in U.S. district courts (habeas and section 1983 petitions combined) fell 17 percent between 1980 and 1996, the year Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Although the total number of filings grew from 23,230 in 1980 to 68,235 in 1996, the rate decreased from 72.7 per 1,000 prisoners to 60.5 per 1,000 prisoners during the 16-year period.

The BJS analysis of prisoner petitions shows the number filed per 1,000 prisoners during 1995 to vary substantially from state to state -- ranging from highs of 149 petitions per 1,000 prisoners in Iowa, 142 in Arkansas and 125 in Mississippi, to lows of 20 per 1,000 in Massachusetts, 22 in North Dakota and 25 in Ohio.

Prisoner civil rights filings declined nationwide by nearly 10 percent to 38,252 in 1996 from 42,144 in 1995. The decline continued in the first quarter of 1997, when prisoner civil rights filings fell to fewer than 7,000, which sets a pace of fewer than 30,000 for the year. But the reason for the decline may extend beyond the inhibitory effect the PLRA may have had on prisoners filing pro se.

"I've seen a great reduction in the number of attorneys willing to get involved in these cases," said noted Ohio attorney Alphonse A. Gerhardstein. He added that the PLRA's "attorney fee caps, its limits on damages, its requirement of administrative exhaustion and its requirement of physical injury -- all of these things affect whether attorneys will assess a case as litigation-worthy and as one they can make money on."

Editor's Note: Single copies of the report, Prisoner Petitions in the Federal Courts, 1980-96 (NCJ-164615) may be obtained by writing to: BJS Clearinghouse; P.O. Box 179, Dept. BJS-236; Annapolis Junction, MD 20 701-0179. The report is also available on the Internet at:

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